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W2W4 at Worlds: Bajrang eyes history; Sakshi and Vinesh return

PTI Photo by Kamal Singh

The Indian team heading for the Paris World Championships is the first one in over a decade for which Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Narsingh Yadav or Geeta Phogat are not considered. It is the passing of an era, which also means that hitherto locked spots on the team rosters are now up for grabs. While some wrestlers will look to cement their claim, others with injuries concerns and questions of focus will look to reaffirm their worth in the tournament that begins on Monday. While Bajrang Punia could become India's first multiple medallist, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik, both on a road to recovery, will also eye podium finishes.

A new-look freestyle division

Over the past decade, the Indian wrestlers have had a hard time fitting in the men's freestyle teams. The fact that Yogeshwar Dutt (60kg and later 65kg division), Sushil Kumar (66kg and later 74kg division) and Narsingh Yadav (74kg division) were near guaranteed fixtures meant that places on the roster were limited. Those three will not be competing at the 2017 World championships. While Bajrang Punia has earned Yogeshwar Dutt's spot in the 65kg weight division, three other wrestlers will be making their debut around him. Taking Punia's old spot in the 61kg division is Harphool. The 25-year-old is the defending commonwealth champion and a former Asian Cadet champion. In the quarterfinals of the senior Asian Championships in May this year, he led 2016 Olympic silver medallist Rei Higuchi 4-2 before losing 7-6 in the quarterfinal.

Fresh faces

One weight category above Punia is Amit Dhankar in the 70kg division. Dhankar won the 2013 Asian Championships in the 65kg division but didn't get many further opportunities since that was also the preferred category for Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt. Also making his debut in the 74kg freestyle division is Parveen Rana. A compatriot of Sushil at the Chhattrasal Academy in Delhi, Rana won a junior world championship bronze in 2011 but like the others, was lower in the pecking order. Rana got a surprise call-up to the Olympic squad after the selection fiasco involving Sushil and Narsingh, but was ultimately never sent. The Paris Worlds will be his first opportunity to prove his worth as a first choice pick.

A shot at history for Bajrang

India has a total of 11 medallists at the World Championships, all of them with a single medal to their name. Bajrang Punia could become the first multiple medallist if he finishes on the podium in Paris. Punia, who won a bronze in 60kg division at the 2013 Worlds in Budapest, has put together some strong results this year, winning his maiden Asian Championship gold medal in the 65kg category in New Delhi in May. Making things easier for him in Paris will be the fact that all of the wrestlers who finished in the top six of this division at the Rio Olympics have either opted out of the World Championships or have moved up to the 70kg division.

However, despite competing in one of the weakest draws of this year's World Championships, Punia might have to overcome a few tricky encounters. Zurabi Iakobishvili of Georgia, a quarterfinalist at the Rio Olympics is in red hot form having won gold in 70kg divison at the Ziolkowski memorial last month. USA's Franklin Gomez, a silver medallist in the 60kg division at the 2010 Worlds' and Russia's Alan Gogaev, a silver medallist in the 66kg division of that tournament are also possible hurdles to the possibility of an Indian medal in Paris.

Vinesh returns to familiar territory

In the year since she suffered a horrific injury at the Rio Olympics, women's freestyle wrestler Vinesh Phogat has managed a slow but steady recovery. Phogat only made her return to international competition at the Asian Championships in May, but chose to compete in the women's 55kg division. The weight was within a kilo of Phogat's regular bodyweight. She had chosen not to make the arduous weight cut to the lightest weight class in senior wrestling - the women's 48kg division - in which she has enjoyed the bulk of her success. The reasoning then was that a draining weight cut often aggravates a recuperating injury.

While Phogat won a silver in Delhi, it was clear that she was at a physical disadvantage competing two divisions above her usual. At the Worlds Phogat is back to the 48kg class. Once she rehydrates from the weight cut, she will be among the bigger competitors in that division. Phogat will need all the advantage she can get as she bids for her first World medal against 18-year-old Asian Champion Yui Susaki, Pan American Champion Victoria Anthony and Canada's Jasmine Mian, who finished behind Susaki at the Klippan's Lady Open earlier this year.

Focus on Sakshi

Few performances can match the high of winning a path-breaking Olympic bronze medal for Sakshi Malik. She has competed in only one international competition since Rio, winning a silver medal at the Asian Championships. Despite the podium finish, she was not at her best in that tournament. Originally meant to compete in the 58kg division - the same in which she had won the medal in Rio, Malik ultimately made a last minute shift up to 60kg. In New Delhi, she was handily beaten 10-0 inside the first half of the match by Olympic champion Risako Kawai. Following the defeat, Malik would admit she wasn't at her best and that she would be in much better shape at the World Championships. That and the accusations of a lack of focus in the run-up to the tournament stemming from reports that she had been spending time sightseeing in Paris along with her husband Satyawart Kadian, are issues she will have to answer on the mat.